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Chris Dollar on the outdoors: Omega protein continues to wreak havoc on Chesapeake Bay ecosystem | COMMENTARY

If it’s true a picture is worth a thousand words, then pause reading and go online to check out the nauseating photos of dead menhaden and red drum that littered the beaches of Virginia’s lower Eastern Shore this week.

Particularly upsetting were the lifeless drums, bleached a ghoulish grey-white by the scorching sun. Chances are you’ve already viewed them and are equally disgusted.

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I have qualms about social media’s outsized influence over modern life but when used like this it’s unquestionably for the common good. Photos don’t lie, and neither do the people who saw first-hand the revolting aftermath of Omega Protein’s error.

On July 25th, a mere mile from the popular Kiptopeke State Park, one of Omega Protein’s purse seine boats ensnared a school of red drum while attempting to haul in a large pod of menhaden. Local media reported that people were shocked and access to the beaches was temporarily closed.

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One out-of-town visitor called it “an unmitigated environmental disaster.” A television news outlet reported that one family manned shovels and rakes to salvage their vacation by trying to clean up Omega Protein’s mess. Not surprising, the stench of so many dead fish, as one family member commented, lingered much longer.

Christine (Chris) Snook, the former owner of Chris’ Bait and Tackle in Cape Charles, was one of those who bore witness to Omega’s mess.

“After being in the (sport) fishing industry for over thirty years, this last spill at Kiptopeke really hit a sore spot. This carnage on our beaches has to stop. No other fisherman or commercial waterman would be allowed to continue,” Snook said. “The reduction industry [practiced by Omega] has finally showed what harm can be done visually and physically. To walk these areas is devastating!”

Predictably, Omega Protein tried to get ahead of the narrative. They apologized to the Eastern Shore community for the “inconvenience.” Just as predictably, the Canadian-owned company’s public relations shop crafted a slick tale that downplayed the severity of the event, calling the episode a “rare and unexpected encounter.”

The company also took responsibility for a July 5th net spill, in which many thousands of menhaden washed ashore along Silver Beach, another popular summer spot about 15 miles to the north. A county official called that incident an “industrial accident” after a dumpster full of dead, rotting fish was left at a local wharf — raising citizen concerns that the liquefied fish waste could leak out and negatively impact a local creek.

The economic impact on the area’s tourism because of Omega Protein’s derelict actions remains unknown.

Omega Protein also praised the captain and crew’s efforts to mitigate the Kiptopeke spill, claiming many of the drum swam away. Estimates of the total dead menhaden and red drum has yet to be determined. I spoke with the Virginia Marine Resource Commission, and officials hope to have an accounting by some time next week.

Often called the most important fish in the sea, menhaden are crucial food for popular game fish such as stripers, red drum, bluefish, cobia, and sea trout. Also called bunker or pogies, menhaden help filter the Chesapeake Bay.

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Breeding sized stripers in the bay rely heavily on bunker for protein, and yet the even though the population is in decline it remains the most popular fishery in the nation. In Virginia alone, striper fishing generates an estimated $166 million in economic activity.

Omega Protein remains the last industrial scale operator of the reduction menhaden fishery on the entire East Coast. No other state still allows this kind of activity with massive nets, huge ships and spotter planes. Omega is the only show in town, and as such has literally cornered the market — hauling in more than 70% of all menhaden harvested on the East Coast.

Much of the bunker is ground into fish-oil pills, fertilizer, and animal feed. Increasingly, the menhaden caught in the Chesapeake and along the Atlantic coast is pelletized to feed penned salmon, one of many seafood operations owned by the parent company of Omega Protein — the seafood behemoth Cooke Inc., based in New Brunswick.

For years, Omega Protein has continued to repeat the refrain that they’re “good neighbors.” The workers, yes. The corporate philosophy, not so much. Last September, after nets tore on two separate occasions less than a week apart, Omega Protein dumped more than more than 400,000 dead menhaden into Hampton Roads waters.

In 2019, after Omega knowingly blasted past the bay cap, they got their knuckles rapped by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission and U.S. Department of Commerce. This isn’t how a good neighbor behaves.

The company also claims its reduction operation is a clean fishery. They accurately cite that “current research indicates that catch of non-targeted species comprises less than 1% by volume.” What they don’t say, however, is that the study they cite to make this claim is nearly 30 years old.

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They also conveniently leave out the fact that, using the 51-metric ton bay cap as a baseline, even 1% means they’re hauling in about 1.12 million pounds of bycatch. That potentially means tens of thousands of breeding size sport fish end up dead.

Extrapolate that out to the entire East Coast, and we are talking about a heck of a lot of fish at a time when conserving sport fish and forage is a top priority for fishery managers and the recreational fishing community.

So, answer me this: Are we, as the major shareholders in the Chesapeake Bay’s unique marine ecology, just expected to take Omega Protein’s word for how many fish die after a net spill, or end up in the bycatch discard column?

Nope. I prefer the Ronald Reagan version of a Russian proverb — trust but verify.

Now what happens? I’d wager almost all recreational anglers and bay lovers want Omega out of the Chesapeake. A broad coalition of sport fishing and boating groups are asking Virginia Gov. Glenn Younkin to do just that: Restrict Omega Protein’s contracted fleet, Ocean Harvesters of Reedville, Virginia, to the Atlantic Ocean waters.

Other reasonable measures to hold Omega Protein accountable include requiring observers on board Omega vessels and establishing a buffer zone within the bay, say two or three miles from shore. Another idea is to ding them for wasting fish by taking it out of their bay quota, fines, or both.

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These ideas are hardly new. And while it will require a heavy lift to get the Virginia legislature on board, it is not a Sisyphean endeavor. Doing nothing sends the entirely wrong message. It basically gives Omega Protein the green light to waste thousands of pounds of critical forage and kill untold thousands of pounds of valuable game fish.

Omega Protein operates as an industry that’s owned by a global entity. Mea culpas and flowery apologies get oh-so tiresome after a while. Chalking up net spills and dead game fish as the cost of doing business doesn’t fly. It’s irresponsible and flat-out wrong to allow wanton waste to continue without accountability.

Calendar

Aug. 14: White Perch Open, hosted by Angler’s Sports Center. Podickory Point Yacht Club, 2116 Bay Front Terrace, Annapolis. Register at anglerssportcenter.com/white-perch-open.

Aug. 20: 16th Annual Youth Fishing Derby, hosted by Kent Island Fishermen. Age groups: 3-5, 6-10 & 11-16. Registration begins at 8 a.m. Fishing from 9 to 11 a.m.


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